By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 4/06/12 in The Madera Tribune
From noon onwards, dark clouds from the Mediterranean Sea had blanketed the metropolis of Jerusalem. For those crammed within the city, bustling with pilgrims, it was a bit cold but tolerably so. For those outside the walls, it must have felt far chillier.
Then there were the condemned criminals who hung from crosses on the roadside hill of Golgotha, north of the capital. They were naked except for perhaps an improvised loincloth, the former veil of a mother now grieving for her child. Even the hard justice of Rome could tolerate a mother’s compassion to that extent.
This was the first Good Friday.
By Jewish reckoning it was probably the 16th day of the Jewish lunar month of Nisan in the year 3791. It was also the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The sabbath would begin at nightfall.
Using the Julian calendar, Romans would have marked that date as the 7th of Aprilis in the 783rd year after the founding of the city of Rome and the 16th year of Roman Emperor Tiberius’ reign. But the only Romans in Jerusalem were occupiers of a foreign land.
About four decades later, Jerusalem would be sacked after a siege by Roman soldiers in retaliation for the Great Jewish Revolt. But for now many in the city were making final preparations for the oncoming sabbath. So many visitors were there for the religious festival, the Passover. Those who were poor came in large groups to ease the burdens of the trip.
Yet the practical concerns fell especially on women, so it was likely that mostly men had the time and inclination to attend the spectacle of Roman justice that morning at the open air stone platform outside the Praetorium, the equivalent of Jerusalem’s city hall under Roman rule.
At the time, justice under Rome was personified by the aristocrat Pontius Pilatus, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea. According to the ancient Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria, he was insensitive to Jewish customs, stubborn, a taker of bribes, cruel, and had a fiery vindictive temper.
Pilatus once spent money from the treasury of the rebuilt Temple of Solomon to build an aqueduct, according to ancient Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. Such funds were meant for the needs and upkeep of the lavish Jewish temple and its ministers. When a group of Jews protested, Pilatus had soldiers hidden within the crowd beat and kill random members of it to silence them all.
In about a half dozen years, Pilatus would be recalled to Rome to respond to a charge that he had suppressed a Samaritan rebellion with excessive brutality. So I expect it wasn’t a complete shock when locals heard he scourged and condemned the popular rabbi Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) to death for the treason of claiming to be a king.
Less than a week before, many in the city had heralded Jesus as a messiah with joy, but now the mood had shifted and grown as dark as the afternoon sky above. On the path through the narrow city streets to execution, mockery dominated, and it persisted to the end.
Many men may have watched his trial, but it was his female devotees who remained with Jesus on that cold hill for the agonizing three hours before his death, his mother among them. As for his dozen apostles who had journeyed with him for years of ministry, only John — the youngest — could be seen.
Compared to most victims, Jesus died quickly. Most of the crucified died after losing days of battles against suffocation, unable to maintain adequate breathing on a cross and tormented by spectators, thirst, and hungry birds. But Jesus had already been severely weakened by his abuse at the hands of soldiers already.
At 3 p.m. he died and the earth trembled.
Yet on that tragic Good Friday we Christians believe Jesus died not merely as a blameless man but as God incarnate, and that he sacrificed himself in the place of each and every human who has and ever will live.
We all have the potential for moral evil, aka sin, and sins are destructive to our own selves, each other, and our relationship with God. Nothing we can do alone can make perfect amends for even the least evil we willingly do. So God, acting as our surrogate, offered himself in the flesh for our sakes.
By doing so, Jesus won for us true forgiveness and healing — if we will embrace it. Do we?